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Regular version of the site

Missing Students

Russia Profile. 11 августа 2011

Irina Abankina, Director of the HSE Institute of Educational Studies, comments on the recent admissions scandal.

An admissions scandal reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol’s classic “Dead Souls” has engulfed a leading Russian medical university, where more than 600 “ghost” applicants with outstanding academic credentials had occupied almost all of the university’s prestigious paid spots. After speculation that the spots in the university were being held so as to later be sold to less qualified students, the dean of the university, along with much of the admissions committee, was fired yesterday. Observers noted that the scandal had further decreased public expectations that the government could control endemic corruption in the university system.

The scheme at the Pirogov Russian Medical University was discovered by Viktor Semak, who independently crunched the data on admissions for several government medical universities and posted his surprising findings in an Internet forum for students. Semak’s “anomaly,” as he called it, was several hundred highly qualified and suspicious applicants, who had all applied to the university in a one-week period shortly before the deadline for applications, but had failed to apply or provide documentation to other leading Russian medical universities.

Those students acted as place-holders that affected admission for almost the entire university: “We are not talking about the admissions committee pushing some of their ‘own people’ through the process, but about the fact that no one can get a budgeted spot at the university, except for the strange list of names,” wrote Semak in his initial post. When the nonexistent students didn’t claim their university spots, they were given out in the far murkier third round of admissions, allowing university officials to possibly sell the spots for profit.

So far the government has focused its response on the school’s leadership, firing five members of the university’s admissions committee, as well as the school’s rector. Statements from Russia’s General Prosecutor today that the university was operating illegally due to an outdated accreditation further indicated that the university’s former leadership would be taken to task by the government in an attempt to stem the possible spread of the scandal. 

Experts in education in Russia have meanwhile been looking for systemic factors that allowed the massive scam to almost go undetected. High on the list of complaints was the lack of oversight of Russia’s new standardized testing system, the EGE, where students with abnormally high scores at the university were not checked earlier against the national database of test-takers. Supporters of the testing system had claimed that it would help to eliminate corruption in higher education by restricting opportunities to bribe university officials in more subjective interviews and essay competitions.

“I don’t believe that the testing is to blame here, quite the opposite,” said Irina Abankina, the director of the Institute for Educational Studies at the Higher School of Economics. “I think credit should be given to the standardized testing system, which ultimately allowed us to check whether or not students actually took these tests, received these results and whether they should be allowed to enroll at the university. If not for this test, then there is no way that anyone would have found out that this had happened,” said Abankina.

The ploy was discovered only by chance, however, when Samek, the data analyst, agreed to help a friend and hopeful applicant analyze the medical universities. So far, he has downplayed his role in the story: “In principle, anyone who possesses computer literacy on the level of a first-year student in data analysis can do what I did,” Semak told RIA Novosti.

Semak’s research reflects a recent trend in Russia, where grassroots research of public data, pioneered by Alexei Navalny, has unearthed shady deals and instances of embezzlement in the Russian government. Decreasing reliance on bureaucrats and individual initiatives is increasingly emerging as the key to curbing corruption in government institutions, said Kirill Kabanov, the chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Committee. “What the scandal has shown us is that no system, neither the EGE nor a change in management at the university, is going to be effective without public efforts against corruption,” he said.

Education Minister Sergei Fursenko suggested yesterday that the government would limit students to applying for free education to only one university, ostensibly because the scheme relied on the explanation that the fake students had applied to multiple institutions, and then had chosen to enroll at another of the capital’s leading medical schools.

That solution would be more likely to disenfranchise students then prevent further fraud, said Abankina, saying that the government should institute a way to check the veracity of application stats. “I don’t think it’s right or effective to deny the rights of students to apply for free spots at multiple universities,” she said. “These names were not taken off the list because they applied to multiple universities, but because their data were misrepresentations of their scores on the EGE, and that is the problem that should be addressed here.”